National Academies’ Recommendations to NASA on Planetary Protection

This self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Feb. 3, 2013, plus three exposures taken on May 10, 2013. (Credit: NASA)

Review and Assessment of Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
June 2018

Full Report

Findings & Recommendations

Recommendation 3.1

Finding: In connection with Mars sample return, planetary protection requirements for the sample containment, verification of containment, return vehicle and sample receiving facility are not yet in place.

Recommendation 3.1: NASA’s process for developing planetary protection policy for sample return missions should include early consultation with mission developers and managers, mission and receiving facility science teams, and microbiologists and include providing a means to use the best available biological and technological knowledge about back contamination and containment.

Recommendation 3.2

Finding: Because NASA planetary protection policies have been incomplete with respect to unique aspects of new, first-of-a-kind missions, requirements for these spaceflight missions have not always been clearly defined at the beginning of a project or communicated to projects in accordance with NASA’s standard protocols for imposing headquarters-level requirements.

Finding: The NASA Office of Planetary Protection and the mission project teams have not been following standard NASA spaceflight program and project management and systems engineering practices. In particular the PPO has been issuing level-1 requirements informally through letters, email, and verbal direction, and the project teams have accepted this practice even though this methodology is inconsistent with normal NASA practices. NASA officials delayed unnecessarily in taking advantage of NASA’s established conflict resolution process.

Recommendation 3.2: NASA should assess the completeness of planetary protection policies and initiate a process to formally define the planetary protection requirements that are missing. NASA should ensure that all future headquarters planetary protection requirements imposed on spaceflight missions follow NASA standard project management and systems engineering protocols for review, approval, and flow-down of requirements and, when disagreements occur, ensure that NASA’s conflict resolution process is followed. For future new situations such as private sector missions to other bodies or human exploration of Mars, the policies and their potential impacts should be evaluated and examined well in advance of a mission start.

Recommendation 3.3

Finding: The COSPAR process can approve international guidance on planetary protection without such guidance being reviewed and agreed upon in advance by the range of NASA stakeholders that participate in making NASA policy on planetary protection.

Recommendation 3.3: NASA should ensure that in assessing changes to COSPAR planetary protection policies and requirements there is a process to engage the full breadth of NASA stakeholders, including the spaceflight mission and science communities. This process should be at least as disciplined as the process NASA uses to review, concur, and approve changes to its own policies.

Recommendation 3.4

Finding: NASA has not finalized all issues related to transferring the PPO from SMD to OSMA or revised its policy directives, procedural requirements, and advisory structure to reflect this important change.

Recommendation 3.4: NASA should expeditiously complete the transition of the OPP to OSMA and clarify the remaining issues concerning roles, responsibilities, resources, and locations of OPP functions. The Chief of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance should complete the Science Mission Directorate’s move toward instituting a formal method for imposing planetary protection requirements that are in accordance with standard NASA systems engineering practices.

Recommendation 3.5

Recommendation 3.5: NASA should develop an agency-wide strategic plan for managing the planetary protection policy development challenges that sample return and human missions to Mars are creating.

Recommendation 3.6

Finding: The development and implementation of planetary protection policy at NASA has benefited in the past from a formally constituted independent advisory process and body. As this report is written, both the advisory body and process are in a state of suspension.

Recommendation 3.6: NASA should reestablish an independent and appropriate advisory body and process to help guide formulation and implementation of planetary protection adequate to serve the best interests of the public, the NASA program, and the variety of new entrants that may become active in deep space operations in the years ahead. The advisory body and process should involve a formal FACA committee and interagency coordination, as well as ad-hoc advisory committees, if and as circumstances dictate. This advisory apparatus should be situated and engage within NASA at a level commensurate with the broad cross-cutting scope of its purview and the potentially broad interests that the involved issues may engender.

Recommendation 3.7

Finding: The field of planetary protection science fills a rather small sector of modern science, and it has not been able to engage a substantial number of scientists who have been leading in important areas of modern sciences. For example, while the field of biology has made enormous advances in recent years many of those advances that could be applicable to improving approaches to planetary protection have not yet been fully integrated into the development of planetary protection policy or translated into practical approaches to implement policies.

Recommendation 3.7: NASA should engage the full range of relevant scientific disciplines in the formulation of its planetary protection policies. This requires that scientific leaders outside of the standard planetary protection community in NASA participate in revisions to NASA and COSPAR planetary protection policies and requirements.

Recommendation 3.8

Finding: NASA has not adequately funded the research necessary to advance approaches to implementing planetary protection protocols and verifying that those protocols satisfy NASA’s increasingly complex planetary protection requirements. For an agency program of solar system exploration and planning for human exploration missions, costing several billion dollars per year, an investment in relevant planetary protection research and technology of less than one tenth of one percent of that total seems inadequate.

Recommendation 3.8: NASA should adequately fund both the Office of Planetary Protection and the research necessary to determine appropriate requirements for planetary bodies and to enable state-of-the-art planetary protection techniques for monitoring and verifying compliance with these requirements. The appropriate investment in this area should be based on a strategic assessment of the scientific advances and technology needs to implement planetary protection for likely future missions.

Recommendation 3.9

Finding: ESA’s planetary protection process reduces organizational conflicts of interest by separating lines of responsibility for formulating policy, establishing requirements, and implementing requirements and by giving more authority to mission project managers to translate top-level requirements into implementation approaches.

Recommendation 3.9: NASA should evaluate the ESA process for planetary protection implementation and strongly consider incorporating the elements of that process that are effective and appropriate.

Recommendation 3.10

Finding: As the exploration of the icy moons rises in priority and plans for piloted missions to Mars emerge, it is necessary to reevaluate and clarify the period of biological exploration.

Recommendation 3.10: Given the implications with respect to the Outer Space Treaty, NASA and COSPAR should facilitate development of an international strategy for establishing periods of biological exploration. Such a strategy should ensure that individual nation states are all using the same values. Specification of this period is vital to the calculations of probability of contaminating a potential habitat on another world.

Recommendation 4.1

Finding: NSC-25 is out of date. Plans to send robotic sample-return and human-crewed missions to Mars in the next few decades will, in all likelihood, create planetary protection challenges that current national processes on developing planetary protection policy are not well-equipped to handle.

Recommendation 4.1: The Administration, most probably through the National Space Council, National Security Council, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should revisit NSC-25 in light of NASA plans for Mars sample-return missions and human-crewed missions to Mars and revise or replace its provisions for engaging relevant federal agencies in developing back contamination protection policies.

Recommendation 4.2

Finding: The effectiveness of COSPAR’s development of planetary protection policy guidelines and international compliance with the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty has mitigated the need for significant interventions by the Department of State. However, the planned sample return and human missions to Mars will raise planetary protection issues that require more diplomatic attention.

Recommendation 4.2: The Department of State, informed by consultations with the appropriate experts and stakeholders, should embark on active international diplomacy to forge consensus on appropriate policies for planetary protection for a broad range of future missions to Mars. The goal should be to maintain and develop international consensus on how best to mutually and cooperatively meet all signatories’ obligations under Articles IX and VI of the Outer Space Treaty. Such diplomacy should take into consideration, to the extent possible, the best available science as well as anticipate new missions in space.

Recommendation 4.3

Finding: The SSB’s international leadership role in planetary protection has been a reflection of the dominant U.S. role in the robotic exploration of the solar system and NASA’s sustained interest in securing and using scientific advice from the SSB, but those factors may are not necessarily guaranteed in the future. The SSB has been reactive to requests from NASA rather than proactive, constrained by the limited pool of planetary protection experts to serve on study committees, unable to provide advice on short time-scales, and focused on issues for robotic scientific missions.

Recommendation 4.3: The SSB and NASA should pursue new mechanisms to anticipate emerging issues in planetary protection, respond more rapidly, and address new dimensions such as private sector missions and human exploration. Future decadal survey committee’s should give greater prominence to planetary protection issues and play a more proactive role in their identification and possible resolution.

Recommendation 5.1

Finding: Although NASA is planning for human missions to Mars in the 2030’s, NASA does not currently have an adequate planetary protection policy for human exploration and activities on Mars. In addition, neither NASA nor the Department of State have crafted strategies for productive international dialog on developing policy for planetary protection and for other issues, such as the relationship between exploration zones on Mars and the OST’s prohibition on national appropriation of parts of celestial bodies, associated with human missions to Mars.

Recommendation 5.1: NASA’s process for developing a human Mars exploration policy should include examination of alternative planetary protection scenarios and should have access to the necessary research that informs these alternatives. It should also include plans to engage with other nations on the policy and legal implications of missions to Mars.

Recommendation 6.1

Recommendation 6.1: Planetary protection policies and requirements for forward and back contamination should apply equally to both government-sponsored and private-sector missions to Mars.

Recommendation 6.2

Finding: A regulatory gap exists in U.S. federal law and poses a problem for U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty’s obligations on planetary protection with regard to private sector enterprises. The Outer Space Treaty requires states parties, including the United States, to authorize and continually supervise non-governmental entities, including private sector enterprises, for any space activity that implicates the treaty, including its planetary protection provisions.

Recommendation 6.2: Congress should address the regulatory gap by promulgating legislation that grants jurisdiction to an appropriate federal regulatory agency to authorize and supervise private-sector space activities that raise planetary protection issues. The legislation should also ensure that the authority granted be exercised in a way that is based upon the most relevant scientific information and best practices on planetary protection.

Recommendation 6.3

Finding: To date, planetary protection policy development at national and international levels has not involved significant participation from the private sector. The lack of private-sector participation creates potential challenges for policy development, because private-sector actors need to be able to understand and embrace appropriate planetary protection measures.

Recommendation 6.3: NASA should ensure that its policy-development processes, including new mechanisms (e.g., a revitalized external advisory committee focused on planetary protection) make appropriate efforts to take into account the views of the private sector in the development of planetary protection policy. NASA should support the efforts of COSPAR officials to increase private-sector participation in the COSPAR process on planetary protection.

Recommendation 7.1

Finding: The issues raised in the committee’s assessment of NASA’s planetary protection policy development processes comprise appropriate topics for a planetary protection strategic plan, but NASA currently lacks such a plan.

Recommendation 7.1: NASA, under the direction of the Office of the Administrator, should develop a planetary protection strategic plan that clearly addresses the agency’s approach for

  • Managing planetary protection policy implementation,
  • Securing relevant outside expert advice,
  • Developing a long-range forecast of future solar system exploration missions having planetary protection implications,
  • Setting planetary protection research and technology investment priorities, and
  • Identifying the agency’s strategy for dealing with major policy issues such as sample-return, human missions to Mars, and private sector involvement in solar system exploration missions.

  • randy carson

    Microbes from Earth, blah, blah, blah… This is not to protect Mars from us, but to protect us from whatever is out there. We are all in for a big shock in the next few years, and they are trickling out information to prepare us for what is coming.

  • Cameron

    We should not be any more concerned about catching something from ‘out there’ than we should be about catching a disease from a tree.

  • I recognize Zubrin’s argument.

    The Dutch Elm tree and humans are very different species so we should not expect a specifuc virus to infect them both. But, if an asteroid caused nitrogen-fixing bacteria (for example) to be kicked off Earth and transported to Mars then a virus able to infect both could theoretically develop independently on Mars. The problem is that there is no possible way for us to be certain about either forward or back contamination.

    Ultimately, we roll the dice or we don’t. I vote that we roll the dice but I predict that there will be vocal, intelligent critics that will argue the opposite and I don’t see a way to completely counter their case due to the uncertainties involved.

  • Tom Billings

    Indeed, if we intend to spread our sort of life throughout the Solar System, then we *will* spread lots of the microscopic biosphere that contains us and is contained within us. Whether one part or another of that biosphere will thrive elsewhere is unknowable till the experiment is tried. The real key here is that this is yet another of the arguments I was finding against human spaceflight to planets as early as the 8th grade debates in Science Club in 1965.

    That is where I first found an interesting phenomenon. People would come up with what they were certain was a technical “show stopper” for spaceflight being successful. Then you would answer it by showing a plausible technical development. Then, they would become a bit more shrill with yet another technical objection, with a bit broader focus. Then you would answer that with several alternative technical solutions.

    Then they would become more shrill in a yet broader objection. Eventually, they were objecting to landing humans until practically every grain of sand on the surface of Mars had been examined for non-Earth life forms, ignoring the tendency of anything we recognize as “life” to spread. Their claim of “science before all else” was an even shriller smoke screen, and when it collapsed under the weight of technically plausible arguments, they began social arguments against emigration that did not end until they got to the ones used by the USSR for refusing Jewish emigration to Israel. This was that “the People” had spent resources educating individuals, and that created an obligation for people to stay and pay that back for their entire lifetime.

    By the end of those debates, over 8 months or more, it was clear that those looking for means to constrain and control people were not in favor of US spaceflight. In similar debates over the last 50 years, I have found that nothing new has been added but details to the basic assumption that people must be constrained, usually by the State. IMHO, the arguments about “contamination” by life from Earth are simply another version of that fundamental belief that people must be controlled. I believe that this argument is a way to justify control.

  • Cameron

    I agree, we need to stop with the excuses of extremely low probability and go do things more.
    I would not be concerned about a virus transported to Mars developing anything. It would almost certainly not survive long, and developing the capability to infect things it has zero exposure to (not many trees or people exposed to infection on Mars) is quite unlikely besides.